Opera Articles
24 May 2017
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An emerging talent
Soprano Rochelle Bard talks about her spinning tone and how to handle cocktail parties
by Michael J. Vaughn

Barbara DivisOne of the United States' most prolific producers of top-notch singers is Opera San Jose, the California company founded in the mid-eighties by the great Metropolitan mezzo Irene Dalis. Using a resident-artist model based on the regional companies of Europe, the group keeps their young singers on board for four years, sending them into the world with a dozen or more roles under their belts.

One of the more amusing sidelines for local aficionados is trying to pick out future stars among the rookies. My own best pick was a young baritone playing Don Giovanni in the late nineties. After the opening scene, I asked my companion, "What the heck is he doing here?" A few years later, he was performing at New York City Opera.

This September, I attended the season-opening performance of OSJ's Romeo et Juliette anticipating the resounding squillando of tenor Christopher Bengochea, and instead found my ears held captive by Rochelle Bard, a lyric whose tone on Juliette's opening "Je veux vivre" I could only describe as "spinning" and "radiant" - that incarnation of notes as individual, living creations that only the best of singers can produce.

Just when I thought I had run out of adjectives, Bard returned to sing "Amour ranime mon courage," Juliette's foreboding contemplation of the friar's sleeping-death poison, with a voice that was suddenly twice as large and much more dramatic. It was as if they had switched sopranos at intermission, or perhaps brought in Bard's identical spinto twin, Rachel.

Bard appears this month in OSJ's La Traviata, where Violetta will provide her the chance to go light and dark with much more frequency.We had the luxury of a lengthy email interview, during which she wrote with remarkable eloquence about that spinning tone, the advantages of being one's own accompanist, and how an opera singer should introduce herself at cocktail parties.

Vaughn: When I first heard you sing, the word "spinning" kept coming into my mind - that's what the tone was doing, spinning, radiating. How do you achieve such an effect?

Bard: You're describing what you hear in such an interesting way. I imagine it's the ring in in the resonance that you are hearing. I've often been told that this is the most exciting thing for an audience member to experience. One teacher told me that she feels like she goes into another dimension when she is sitting in a theater with someone's voice swirling all around her. I don't think about creating this effect, but I do think about not getting in its way. If you place your voice in your resonance, the bright, upper part, and warm it up a little with the bottom part, the sound should spin. If you push, it either becomes brassy or loses its spin entirely because you're forcing your voice out a smaller hole. Also, if you try to warm or darken your sound too much, it will place farther back in your head and lose the spin. To me, singing is all about getting out of your voice's way. We all like to have control over our voices, but it's precisely in giving up the control that your voice has its own freedom. We can change the support and breath and color, but the technique is generally the same. Sounds cheesy when I explain it, but it's true!

Vaughn: This being your first Violetta, what have you learned about her? And how does she match up with your skills?

Bard: Violetta is real. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and I have great respect for that kind of openness. She has a foundation of dark colors, rumored to have had an abusive father, and having to deal with all sorts of men in her short life. This is covered with a thick layer of grace and pride. Alfredo is able to break through the shell that she shows to the world. She's a no-holds-barred kind of gal. Her love and sacrifice and pain are equally gigantic. Violetta is more my style (than Juliette) because of her layering. There is so much meat to this role. It is so easy to get caught up in her reality. Portraying her feels completely natural to me. Her plight and the way she loves makes so much sense.

Vocally, Violetta shows off everything that I have. I began singing as a lyric coloratura, so I can access that part of my voice in the first act. Then the rest is is who I am now. The (more dramatic) lyric quality to my voice has come in the last few years. Once I was told by a coach to put myself on a listening diet of strictly Montserrat Caballe, and I think by osmosis I inherited at least a small part of her ability to float high notes. I was trained in a bel canto style by Edward Zambara at the New England Conservatory. My present teacher, Trish McCaffrey, has since helped me connect and open up all parts of my voice and sing true to myself at all times...and never more. She once studied with Mr. Zambara, and they have a similar foundation of technique, which I find to be very healthy and freeing.

Vaughn: So tell me what your dream roles are.

Bard: I do believe that Violetta has long been my dream role. I begged my first teacher to let me sing her arias. Thankfully, she lovingly told me to wait at the time. Coming from Juliette, this may seem hard to believe, but I'm singing Butterfly here in April/May. I was hesitant to accept this role because of its magnitude, but after studying it with my coach and teacher, we all agreed that it is right for me. I've found that the key to singing this healthfully is to look back at the previous generation of singers like Licia Albanese and Renata Scotto. They sang with clear resonance to cut through the orchestration during the big moments. Singing Cio-Cio San forces you to be smart about your singing. So, over the past year and a half while studying Butterfly, I have fallen in love with her. It is clear how much Puccini felt for her as well. Musically, this year, I'm on cloud nine. What could be better than singing Violetta and Butterfly? Other roles that I'm aching to sing are Susannah (Floyd) and Mimi. I'm always happy in the bel canto rep as well. I'm thinking that Lucia will be good for me.

Vaughn: Okay, so it's time for the cliché question. So, like, how did you first get into the great big world of opera?

Bard: My story is a little different than most - I have a degree in Biology Premed and was trained as a pianist. I had always sung in church and in choirs, but was mostly an accompanist for singers. I had no interest in pursuing singing until a year after college. I was teaching biology before applying to med schools, and I decided to audition for a local production of The Sound of Music. I was the youngest adult in the show and they cast me as the Mother Abbess! A man who I now refer to as an angel in disguise came up to me after a show and asked me why I wasn't studying singing instead of teaching. I decided to go back to school for music and met a wonderful teacher named Nancy King who helped me find my voice and pushed me into performing instead of education. The rest is history. I was accepted into the Chautauqua Voice Institute and then the New England Conservatory, but it wasn't until my first summer as a vocal fellow at Tanglewood that I started calling myself a singer by trade. I think it was due in part to my piano background, but I had a hard time including myself in a group of people that seemed a little overwhelming (and more than a bit dramatic)! The more I sang and discovered about myself, the more I realized that I fit right in...drama and all. There will always be a part of me that harbors the shy pianist inside.

Vaughn: Does your training as a pianist give you an advantage?

Bard: Being a pianist is a huge advantage. I teach privately on the side and I always encourage my young singers to study piano first. I explain to them that I have saved lots of money and time by not having to rely on coaches to teach me my music. Also, while I was in school and even now, a good portion of my salary comes from playing the piano for church services and weddings, etc. I've been blessed to never have had a desk job and hopefully it will stay that way!

Vaughn: What has your residency at Opera San Jose done for you so far?

Bard: Opera San Jose has given me the gift of singing some amazing leading ladies this season. The best part is having time in the rehearsal process to explore and grow. We have a longer rehearsal period than most companies. We have time to experiment, play, and eventually solidify before we open. If I am lucky enough to sing Violetta in the future, I will surely have a solid foundation in the role.

Vaughn: So what do you tell people at cocktail parties when they ask what you do? Do you say "opera singer" right away, or do you hold back a little?

Bard: I generally don't drop the "opera" word until later in conversations. I tend to tell strangers that I am a singer, which half the time results in, "You look like a singer," and the other half say, "Wow, sing something!" (to which I always refuse!). Sometimes it ends there, but if they ask I'll elaborate, and if they bite, I attempt to gain a new audience member. I've found that the number-one factor in people's hesitance about opera is that they don't know there are usually supertitles. I'll have to remember to share that with our marketing department. This is fun...anything else?

Vaughn: Well, now for the requisite tabloid question. Have you been seen canoodling with a certain Opera San Jose beefcake baritone?

Bard: Yes, I am still with Ken Mattice, and I think at this point I'm used to people drooling over him! At cocktail parties, it's especially amusing when he's fielding questions from young men and middle-aged women alike! He and I are engaged and are planning a June wedding in Cape Cod (where my family is from). He and I met as studio artists a few seasons ago at Baltimore Opera.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 20-year opera critic, and author of the opera novel, "Gabriella's Voice," available at amazon.com.
© Michael J. Vaughn
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